On Time is Late

Before VGKids had employees, before we had a reputation for dependability, and before I knew pretty much anything at all, I had one deadline. I’d promised a haunted house in Florida a batch of t-shirts for their opening night. They were clear about the deadline from the beginning, and it was probably only my conviction when I agreed to it that even got me the job — there wasn’t much else to recommend us in those days.

What I didn’t tell the customer was that the whole company was just me, a hodgepodge of scrappy equipment I didn’t really know how to use, and a procrastination problem.

Which is how I found myself on my bicycle with a 50 pound box of t-shirts on the handle bars. Just to be clear, this wasn’t in an eco-warrior, bike trailer kind of way, or like the touchstone for cool people everywhere, a bike messenger. This is a hundred t-shirts crammed in a recycled box designed for 72 (so maybe I was an eco-warrior) balanced on my handle bars, and I could barely see over the top or get my arms around it to hold on. On five lanes of Michigan Ave traffic on the outskirts of town, trying to get to the UPS hub. Pedaling hard not to arrive before they’d closed- they’d closed 2 hours ago.

What I was killing myself to do was get there in time to sneak into a side door and get my already-labeled box onto the conveyor belt before the trucks left the building and locked in the arrival date gaurantee (thank you, blessed UPS guy that taught me that trick). And I wasn’t on my bike because I didn’t own a car, I had a car. It’s a safe guess my car was broken down or across town for who-knows why.

And so it was under duress that I made the deadline, the client got the shirts, they scared the hell out of all the good people in Florida who are into that kind of thing, and VGKids got popular in the haunted house scene (that’s a thing, apparently). I felt like a hero.

But I was a hero in a disaster-recovery situation I had constructed myself, and it never had to be that way.

The client had given us two weeks to do what amounted to 6 hours of work. The problem, leaving aside hero culture and my own lust for adventure, is that I had set the goal wrong.

I was trying to get the job done on time, and on time is late.

On time assumes that:

1. You’ll do your job competently (a lot to ask, in this case)

2. Other people will do their job competently (mileage varies)

3. All parties communicated correctly (um… yeah.)

4. Events outside of your control, e.g. a natural disaster, won’t impinge upon your success

On time is begging to be late. The solution comes down to what I’m coining Reliance on Luck, or RoL for short. The best people have near-zero RoL: that shit will not fly while they’re on the job. But as you get lower down the chain of competence, RoL goes up.

What’s interesting, is you can change your personal Reliance on Luck pretty easily, it’s like a preference setting in your head. Your bank balance is a good example: when do you consider yourself to be ‘out of money’? If it’s when the balance is $0, you’re definitely going to overdraw your account, because it needs to be managed with an unlikely degree of precision.

If you consider yourself broke when you only have 3 months of living expenses in your account, you are very unlikely to overdraw your account unless something major happens.

That’s obvious, but my point is this: you can choose the point at which you feel broke, in the same way that you can choose the point at which you feel late. It’s that internal expectation and commensurate stress that guides your behavior.

Reliance on Luck is like a line in the sand, and it’s totally up to you where it is. By drawing your “this is what safe feels like” line to include a buffer, your RoL will be lower, and over time, your entire life will operate more smoothly.

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